Kenyans are staring at a fresh round of shortages and price hikes of essential commodities such as petrol, food and pharmaceuticals amid a biting shortage of foreign exchange.
Private sector players, including importers and manufacturers, are already reeling from an unprecedented dollar shortage, a situation they say has worsened in recent weeks and could see their operations grind to a halt if unchecked.
The lack of access to dollars from local banks to fund imports comes at a time Kenyans are already facing a painful cost of living squeeze.
The pressure on foreign exchange was visible on the forex market yesterday, with forex bureaus and commercial banks selling the greenback at an average price of Sh135.
Manufacturers confirmed the access to foreign exchange strain, saying the unavailability of forex in the country is already having a huge impact on their operations.
A majority of manufacturers are struggling to pay their foreign suppliers and creditors, risking their ability to meet their manufacturing needs, Financial Standard has learnt.
"Yes, most of the manufacturers are encountering the struggle of getting their forex requirements," said Kenya Association of Manufacturers Chairman Rajan Shah.
Manufacturers now want the foreign exchange crunch addressed immediately by the banking regulator - the Central Bank of Kenya - before it snowballs into a full-blown crisis that could hit the economy hard.
CBK Governor Dr Patrick Njoroge, however, recently maintained the market has adequate foreign exchange to meet demand from importers and corporates for payments like dividends.
The regulator has also in the past insisted that it is committed to a flexible exchange rate.
CBK recently also projected Kenya's foreign exchange market will be stable this year, mainly due to an improvement in the current account deficit.
"The usable foreign exchange reserves remained adequate at $6.860 billion or Sh869.8 billion (3.84 months of import cover) as of February 23. This meets the CBK's statutory requirement to endeavour to maintain at least four months of import cover," said CBK on Friday in its weekly bulletin.
Financial Standard could not immediately get a comment from CBK for this report. "We have had several engagements with CBK yet no solution is available," said Mr Shah in the interview.
"It is necessary to have free interbank trading without restrictions on rate to be traded to have a better flow of foreign exchange."
A similar biting dollar shortage last year saw many manufacturers operate below their capacity.
At the time, leading manufacturers, including edible oil producers Kapa Oil Refineries and Pwani Oil, revealed how the dollar shortage amid raw material rationing had disrupted their operations.
The firms said at the time they were forced to temporarily freeze or scaled down part of their operations due to a shortage of raw materials that they blamed on difficulties accessing the greenback to pay suppliers on time.
Industrialists through their lobby, KAM, at the time raised the alarm over a similar dollar shortage and their struggles to settle obligations to overseas suppliers promptly.
KAM said this strained relations with suppliers, at a time competition for raw materials, had intensified globally due to rising demand amid lingering supply chain constraints.
The warning by the manufacturers comes barely a month after the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) warned foreign investors are shying away from Kenya's capital markets due to a lack of adequate foreign exchange to invest in securities at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) and repatriate accrued dividends and returns.
"The lack of adequate foreign exchange to enable foreign investors to uptake capital markets products and repatriate returns has been highlighted as a key issue of concern by the capital markets industry," said the market regulator.
This hurdle is seen as a blow to President William Ruto's new government's efforts to attract much-needed foreign investment to the bourse and other sectors of the economy.
"Foreign investors decry the lack of foreign exchange to invest in securities and repatriate dividends leading to them shying away from Kenya's capital markets," added CMA.
CMA had warned this is a double blow as foreign investors who account for a significant contribution to equities turnover had already been withdrawing from the Kenyan capital markets as they chased yields in safer jurisdictions.
"The lack of adequate foreign exchange is a key risk, which further exacerbates the impact of emerging exogenous shocks, which affect the attractiveness of our domestic capital markets," CMA said.
A spot-check by Financial Standard yesterday showed customers are buying the dollar at more than Sh130 compared to the Central Bank's official exchange rate of 126.61 units, stoking fears of a parallel exchange rate market.
Retail dollar buyers are paying up to Sh136 per unit in the banking halls as the demand for the greenback continues to surge.
This has seen the margin between the US dollar's printed rate by CBK and the market rate for customers quoted by banks and foreign exchange bureaus continue to widen.
CBK data showed the shilling exchanged at an average of Sh126.6147 against the dollar on Monday.
Several large banks are now selling the dollar at between Sh133 and Sh136 per unit, while buying the same at between Sh123 and Sh125, with bankers and forex bureaus saying the higher prices are driven by demand and the cost of accessing the hard currency on their part.
This comes as Kenya confronts a currency crisis involving the steep decline in the value of the shilling, which is causing negative ripple effects throughout the economy.
Experts recently warned Kenya risks turning into a partially dollarised economy as more traders and corporates shun the troubled shilling in favour of the greenback for day-to-day transactions.
The trend referred to as dollarisation, where the use of dollars as a means of exchange informally gains currency for ordinary transactions like rent payments and other utilities, experts said, poses many risks to the economy.
If dollarisation - the preference for dollars - is not reined in, experts warned, the phenomenon could largely stifle growth as the country may not be able to effectively utilise its monetary instruments.
It could also influence economic activity, and Kenya may gradually even lose competitiveness compared to its major trading partners.
The surging US dollar has seen the shilling weaken, contributing to the skyrocketing prices of most basic commodities.
The shilling has been on a free fall, hitting an all-time low against the dollar in the recent past, signalling inflation and higher costs of imported goods.
A weak shilling is harmful to the country given that Kenya is an import-driven economy.
The country imports various goods, including cars, petroleum products, machinery, medicine and pharmaceutical products, vegetable oil, wheat, clothing and shoes.
A weaker shilling will also keep the price of imports such as fuel elevated, inevitably pushing up the cost of goods and services and further raising inflation, which has remained stubbornly high at 9.1 per cent as of last month.
The continued weakening of the local currency is expected to push up the cost of living, further hurting households already reeling from high fuel and food prices.
Foreign deposits in local banks stood at the equivalent of Sh922 billion as of last November, according to CBK data.